Titanic: Sink or Stink?
Directed by James Cameron
Like so much popcorn falling from a folding movie seat, the passengers and crew tumble from the ascending stern of the ocean liner Titanic. I sat among a mostly teenage female audience, who cooed and sighed at almost every one of “Leo’s” lines and actions, while they fidgeted and looked about nervously during every scene in which he was absent.
Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t get off on real life tragedy. At least not the type in which readily accessible truth is twisted, mutilated and morphed to suit a “director’s vision.” Aren’t the true lives and stories of the Titanic’s crew and passengers worthy enough to make a great motion picture? Isn’t there enough drama available when 1,500 lives are lost at sea, without the interjection of a fabricated, somewhat over-idealized, and even cliché love story? Obviously, neither James Cameron nor his financial backers thought so.
But in the absence of all the real stories of the Titanic the $200,000,000+ white elephant of a budget couldn’t afford (the actual Titanic only cost approximately $6,500,000 to build, back when we had a gold standard), there seemed to be plenty of room for scenes of more relateable instances of constantly fumbling and looking for keys to unlock various handcuffs, doors, gates and safes. As well as last-minute love-triangle gunplay in the shadow of certain doom, and shot after shot of the same two people running down, escaping, only to reenter the same water-filled hallways.
About a decade ago, there was great debate regarding the ethics of disturbing the peace of the Titanic’s seventy-five year slumber. Not only has James Cameron achieved in “raiding the actual tomb” of Titanic, he did one better: He robbed the victims of the Titanic disaster of any dignity their deaths had left.
Oh sure, there were token amounts of decorum reserved for the musicians of the Titanic. We all expected that. Kathy Bates gave a glimpse of the strength of character in Molly Brown and then shut up and sat back down in the lifeboat. But the rest of the Titanic were pawns in a classic scheme of mob rule. A 250 foot, 2,200 people Lord of the Flies microcosm. Cannon fodder for a cinematic orgasm. Their digitally-enhanced bodies bounced and smashed pathetically against prop, rail and board before splashing into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, much to the delight of the audience. They screamed, prayed and told children one last bedtime story. All pitifully, and all in vain, for there was no nobility left on the mighty ship. It got off with the rats. They resorted to fighting, shooting, adultery and meaningless suicide.
I’m not saying that when the Titanic actually began to sink, mayhem didn’t ensue. It’s more than likely that it did. The question is do we want to trivialize the value of their lives in the name of momentary entertainment? If a plane carrying 1,500 passengers were to have suddenly crash would we want to “romanticize” about that “memorable” flight and those wacky passengers on it?
In the film, the only characters who seemed to have the capacity to maintain composure were DiCaprio’s and Winslet’s. Oh yeah, they were the FICTIONAL CHARACTERS! As a matter of fact, while everyone else went to pieces, DiCaprio’s character, towards the third act, became somewhat an expert on how to survive a sinking, while Winslet’s became endowed with great “gallows humor.” Go figure. They shared a fictional love so great, it’s even suggested one mighty kiss between these much “too good to be true” characters was enough to distract the real life Titanic ice-watch long enough to delay it from sighting the infamous iceberg.
And who better to antagonize this perfect model of the ultimate whitebread couple (when the real culprit of the tragedy lacks a face) than Billy Zane? Zane gives an over-the-top portrayal of a classic two-dimensional villain so evil that the imminent death and destruction surrounding him only serves to bring out not humanity, but simply more banal cartoonish evil from himself and his evil henchman, classic English bad guy David Warner. The aliens and robots of Cameron’s previous films had more depth of character than those we are to assume inhabited the Titanic. Where great painstaking effort was made to give the ship a true three-dimensional feel, the characters involved were nothing but paper dolls to be tossed about like so much of the other “authentic” props.
“For he so loved the world that he gave up his only salary.”
I’m not even sure if I buy into this whole James Cameron giving up his salary bit. It does, however, make him seem a lot more pious in the face of his exploitation. He’s playing it up a bit too much. If anything, I’d rather “not get paid” in Hollywood than a lot of other jobs. There’s no telling what the fringe benefits of being the writer, director and producer of a major motion picture entails these days. As a matter of fact, how much does he get paid every time he says he’s sacrificed his salary? And which salary was it that he sacrificed? If you ask me, his sacrifice of salary is a testament to his own failures as a producer.
I left the theater nauseated at the simulated, digitally-enhanced carnage I had just witnessed, while teenage girls giggled in chorus, “He was so cuuuuuttttte!” This uneasiness was overridden by an even more sickening feeling of confusion in asking myself whether there was any truth to be had in the film I had just seen. My only consolation being the urge to rent a better, although less-polished, B/W film, A Night to Remember.
There isn’t any doubt that Titanic is a beautiful film, loaded with the superficial authenticity and detail lacking in many docudramatizations of past historical events. Does that justify what James Cameron has done to Titanic’s memory? Does it justify how this film is so unquestionably and warmly received by a perhaps historically illiterate and/or insensitive, rabid movie-going audience? I actually think James Cameron and Bill Paxton’s character have a lot in common, with the exception that Cameron is still looking for the “diamond” in Titanic.